Mardi Gras celebrations get under way in New Orleans this weekend, although on a much smaller scale than in past years. The city is still recovering from the devastation unleashed by Hurricane Katrina on August 29 of last year. Local spirits were boosted Friday by two important reopenings.
Crowds have returned to the slot machines and gaming tables once again at Harrah's casino in downtown New Orleans. The casino reopened Friday with full services and close to 1,300 employees. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, there was another important reopening, that of the New Orleans Convention Center, which served as a temporary shelter for hundreds of desperate people in the days following Katrina.
The first event at the Convention Center is a Gift and Jewelry Show featuring 600 exhibits. Some 15,000 shoppers crowded the halls on Friday and it was a happy scene for New Orleans Convention and Visitor's Bureau President Stephen Perry.
"It is a really powerful national signal, all over the United States and all over the world that New Orleans is back," Perry said. "It is open and it is ready for business."
The reopening of Harrah's casino represents an important source of income for the cash-strapped city as well. The casino pays the city $925,000 a year to operate here and also draws tens of thousands of tourists who spend money at local hotels and restaurants.
Harrah's New Orleans' Senior Vice President and General Manager Jim Hoskins tells VOA that this is a new beginning for the casino in this city.
"It is full entertainment," Hoskins said. "We have Masquerade, which is a bar and night club, we have a theater where tonight local musician Alan Touissant is playing. We offer a full array of that type of experience. We offer all the normal experiences, night club activity and first-class entertainment. We are going to have some Broadway shows in the future and other types of shows."
Hoskins says one of the big challenges his company faced in reopening the casino was finding places where the 1,300 employees could live. Most of the residential areas in New Orleans were devastated by flooding and are still uninhabitable. Hoskins says Harrah's hired two housing coordinators to find places for employees to live.
"We set up relief centers after the storm, so we knew if they needed housing help," he said. "What these two coordinators did was go out and try to facilitate with the community and find all kinds of housing options. They have been really successful with that and we are very happy about it."
Carnival parades and parties have begun in neighborhoods across New Orleans, leading up to the grand celebration on February 28, known as Mardi Gras. City leaders hope this will give New Orleans a further boost, but it may be limited in impact. Fewer than half of the city's 3,000 pre-Katrina restaurants have reopened and hotel rooms are hard to find anywhere near the city. Only about a third of the city's former residents have returned and many remain in hotels all across Louisiana and other states waiting to see if it will be possible for them to return.